Catherine Coleman Flowers: A Disruptor in the Best Sense

RMI’s newest board member brings environmental justice issues front and center.

Catherine Coleman Flowers has always been an activist. Her parents were leaders in their community in Lowndes County, Alabama, and activists during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. They taught their daughter that to be a good neighbor meant to be actively involved in making the community a better place to live for all. After serving in the military and teaching high school social studies, Flowers founded the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice to help solve the intersecting challenges of water and sanitation infrastructure, public health, and economic development.

The environmental justice activist, White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council vice chair, author, and MacArthur Genius Grant recipient is one of RMI’s newest board members.

RMI Manager Moana McClellan and RMI’s Director of Energy Equity Carmelita Miller sat down with Flowers to learn about her work, her motivation, the challenges she faces, and what she hopes to bring to RMI.

The following is edited for brevity and clarity.

McClellan: Perhaps we can start the conversation by touching on what drives you and how you got into your environmental justice advocacy work.

Flowers: When I stopped teaching and began working in economic development, I started to understand the bridge between economic development and social activism. I learned that if we’re going to change anything about our environment and our infrastructure, we have to understand the economic components of that.

And I couldn’t do the work that I was doing without understanding what was happening with the environment. As I was dealing with the wastewater issue in my own county, I saw [Al Gore’s film] An Inconvenient Truth. The film really brought it all home for me — and made clear the connection between why climate change was happening, why we were having wastewater problems in Lowndes County, and how those problems were contributing to a rise in diseases that we thought we had gotten rid of. It was because it was getting warmer, and these tropical illnesses that we thought would happen in other places, in other climates, could actually manifest here in the United States. That’s how I got involved and what ultimately brought me to where I am now.

McClellan: What do you view as the most critical and significant changes in dialogue and advocacy currently taking place? Additionally, could you share your thoughts on what further developments or shifts you hope to see to further advance these goals?

Flowers: One of the biggest shifts in dialogue I’ve seen in recent years is that people now acknowledge that climate change is real. I think that’s a major shift, because initially people did not want to acknowledge that. And we’re starting to understand that this is not something that’s going to happen in another lifetime, but is happening in our lifetime.

Another shift I’m seeing is in the types of conversations happening on a federal level, and seeing the bipartisan support. Before, climate change was more of a left-wing thing. But now people understand that it is happening across the US. It is happening around the world, and it doesn’t matter what your political affiliation is. With weather getting more and more extreme, climate change is even more apparent, and it makes us realize that resiliency and rebuilding are part of our reality now.

Moving forward, I would like to see more changes to our infrastructure that reflect the reality we’re in now. I’d like to see the building codes change, and I think that we have to build infrastructure with climate justice in mind. We must have just design that takes into account not only our need to mitigate the effects of climate change when it happens, but plan for them before it happens.

Miller: We often talk about energy, climate, and environmental equity and justice as separate yet interconnected areas, each demanding fairness and justice. However, I’ve noticed tensions between these areas. For instance, certain energy policies may conflict with environmental justice principles, or climate policies might clash with energy equity. Have you observed or experienced similar tensions in your work?

Flowers: I think that tension can exist because the economic system in this country is based on the same systems that came up out of slavery, and we didn’t dismantle that. And one of the things that I like to keep reminding people of is that this is an opportunity for us to build new systems. And as we build those new systems, we must ensure they are equitable. Because right now, if we’re going to build on top of the same old systems, we’re going to have tension in our policies between the old and the new.

I think we need to be conscious of it first — because most people aren’t conscious of it. And then, we need to figure out how we change it. How do we make sure that there is a just transition? There has to be a whole systems approach that is resilient. Resilience must be top of mind. We have to make sure that we’re not just giving people access to the clean energy, but that the system and infrastructure that delivers the energy is resilient and sustainable for the home or community.

A good example is helping oil-rich countries make the just energy transition while maintaining their economies. How do you tell a country that, 60 years ago, was a desert and was poor, and then discovered oil and built their economy off of it that they can’t use oil anymore? You have to do that with an understanding that you’ve got to help them diversify their economy. And part of that is that we have to lead by example. We can’t tell other countries to make a change when we are here in this country escalating our drilling, selling more oil leases, and doing the same thing. We have to walk the walk and talk the talk. And I think, across the board, that’s part of my role.

At this point, as a wise old lady, my role is reminding people of the truth. Sometimes, there has to be somebody in the room to speak truth, trying to pull people’s coat tails and say, “Look, let’s be real now.”

McClellan: How do you approach reconciling the tensions in economic development and environmental justice, and what strategies might you suggest to advance both in tandem?

Flowers: One of the things we have to talk about is how to make sure that the people in the community also have some ownership. We usually don’t do that.

For example, I was in conversation with a company that was looking to locate itself in a specific area with a large African American population. But they didn’t know how to do community engagement. Companies often approach community engagement as an afterthought — they think it should happen after they have secured the land, after they have gotten all the plans approved and all the folks that normally profit from it have benefited from it. And then the community gets the crumbs — if they get anything at all.

There’s no real equity when that happens — it’s an unfair process and system. What I try to do is remind people that, because of the history of our economic system that is rooted in slavery, we are often building on top of inequities, and if we expect to get something equitable out of that, it’s not going to happen. We need to involve communities earlier on, really listen to what they need, and engage in good faith. I tell my students at Duke, just because you go to a privileged institution, doesn’t mean that you can go into a poor community and speak for the people. They can speak for themselves. They’re the experts.

The primary principle of environmental justice is do no harm.

The same thing is true when we talk about businesses and economic development projects going into communities. We don’t talk to the community until it’s too late, but if we talked to them earlier on in the process, we could mitigate some of the issues. Communities can advise project developers to build that plant “over there, not over here” because you’re building it on top of my ancestors’ graveyard. Or when we talk about mining, who benefits from that? I saw a report in a coal mining community, a young man in his thirties already has black lung disease and can’t qualify for disability. And we wonder why people are pushing back. We have to be a lot more humane. The primary principle of environmental justice is do no harm.

And sadly enough, the people that do harm in the EJ [environmental justice] communities don’t want to do harm in their own communities. So I think we must come from the premise of “if I wouldn’t put it in my own backyard, why would I put it somewhere else?” And we can start asking, “How do we build something together? Something that’s beneficial for everyone instead of finding the cheapest and dirtiest way to do it?”

Miller: What impact do you aim to drive in your leadership role within mainstream climate organizations such as RMI?

Flowers: I would like to see RMI join in with EJ and poor communities, and share the innovation with them to show them what is possible. I hope to be a bridge to help facilitate those relationships, because you know, a lot of it is trust, and I’m willing to loan my credibility to make that happen. I think RMI has a lot of information to share and lot of people that want that information. And we just have to figure out how to build those bridges, and remember that those bridges go in both directions.

McClellan: How do you leverage your expertise and experience to shift conversations, especially when you hold a contrary opinion to others at the table? For instance, when others think that the way to speed up the energy transition is by obviating community input or by overlooking communities’ pushback, how do you refocus the discussion and align those with contrasting opinions towards a more just approach?

Flowers: Whenever people don’t understand, I either take them on a trip so they can see the impact on communities for themselves, or I bring them the stories of people who can present another perspective. When we appeal to the human side, most people tend to respond in a positive way.

I also try to find common ground, and from there, we can deal with issues. I think the fact that they asked me to serve means they already know who I am. So, they also know I’m strong in my own opinion and that I’m going to speak up. If they were looking for someone else, they would appoint someone else.

I’m a disruptor. I’m there to change things. Because if we’re going to do the same thing the same old way, then I need to be spending my time somewhere else.

There still must be systemic changes within these organizations so that we can get to where we need to be. But I’m going to work with them if they’re willing to work with us, so let’s see what happens.

I do think that people are ready to hear this perspective, and sometimes they can’t say it themselves. They need somebody else to say it. That the energy transition can’t be all about profit. That should not be the driving force. It should be about saving the planet and making sure that everybody has access to clean and renewable energy. Because if we don’t do it that way, and it’s just solely about making money, we’re going to have the same problems we’ve always had — a lot of people will be left behind.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s in the United States, China, India, or the United Arab Emirates. The principles are the same — real people and communities need to be heard and need to be part of solutions. My role is to remind people that we still have to be humane as we as we look at this energy transformation, and it has to be done in such a way that it is just and doesn’t leave anybody behind.

On a lot of the boards and organizations I join, my voice and perspective has generally not been there. And sometimes people have been afraid to bring voices like mine into the room. Because I am a disrupter. I’m there to change things. Because if we’re going to do the same thing the same old way, then I need to be spending my time somewhere else.